4 Lessons Matthew McConaughey Taught Me About Success
Matthew McConaughey is an Academy Award-winning actor known for his films Dazed and Confused, A Time to Kill, The Wedding Planner, Lincoln Lawyer, Dallas Buyers Club, Interstellar and many others. His new book, Greenlights, is a New York Times bestseller.
The Oscar-winner is also the creative director of Wild Turkey, so it was fitting we started our discussion off with a toast of his Wild Turkey Longbranch, an 8-year-old Kentucky Straight Bourbon developed by McConaughey. The drink, much like McConaughey, was warm and inviting. Speaking to McConaughey was like catching up with an old friend.
McConaughey talked about what life was like growing up, family, maintaining oneself and the circle of life, delving into how life changed after losing his father and becoming a parent. What follows are a few lessons you can learn from him on living a more meaningful life.
You can watch an excerpt from our conversation below:
McConaughey's responses have been condensed and edited for readability.
1. Don't hold grudges
McConaughey grew up in Uvalde, Texas. His mother was a kindergarten teacher, and his father was in the oil business. "We were always a tight-knit family. Love was something that was never in question. It was a raucous family. We fought, and we hugged, and we wrestled, but the love was never in question," McConaughey says.
"If you got in trouble for something [in my family], nobody afterward was like, 'I can't believe you did…' No, it was done. No grudges. And if you did have something you needed to hash out, my parents would be like, 'All right. Here we go. We're going to sit here and hash this out. I don't care if we go through the night. I don't care if you miss school tomorrow and I miss work. We will hash this out to a point we will not walk away from the conversation until we've all shed our tears and hugged and said, "I love you."'"
Science reinforces this notion: a 2019 Stanford Forgiveness Project study found that carrying anger into old age is associated with higher inflammation and chronic illness. Another 2019 study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes showed that those with "incidental anger were less likely to take in others' perspectives." As you can imagine, taking in others' perspectives is essential for learning and relationship success.
Whether it's bitterness held onto with anger or hopelessness held onto with despair, these psycho-physiological responses do real mental and physical damage, according to Dr. Frederic Luskin, founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. Holding onto grudges can dampen immune function, cause nervous system deregulation and harm your cardiovascular health. It also shuts you out from the reality unfolding around you, filtering it through a lens of resentment.
So, it's in your best interest to forgive and let go. How? By confronting conflicts with business partners, family, friends or spouses as they happen. Look it in the eye and get ahead of the resentment, lest you let it fester and slowly rot you from the inside out.
2. Know when to walk away
In the '90s and early 2000s, McConaughey scored high-paying romantic comedy roles left and right. Then, he did something unexpected: He walked away. "Right after I had done like... four romantic comedies, and had been very successful at them, I wanted to change my career and do more dramatic work. But I wasn't getting offered those jobs. So, because I couldn't do what I wanted to do, I just stopped doing what I was doing," McConaughey says.
For 20 months, he turned down significant paychecks (one was for $14.5 million) in pursuit of a greater purpose. "One side of me is like... You're getting great offers to do work that you like to do in these rom-coms. Just do them. Be happy about them. But the other side is like, 'No, no. I want to hold out and find some work that challenges the vitality of my life and who I am in it. And if I can't do that, then I'm not going to do any work."
Hitting the brakes on psychological momentum is difficult. We experience this in many forms, whether it's breezing through household chores one after another, or, in the case of McConaughey, hitting back-to-back home runs at the box office doing romantic comedies. But listening to your gut feeling is essential. Intuition tends to improve with experience, and in his case, walking away was the most challenging yet most important decision he made.
3. Embrace solitude
After his breakout role in the 1996 courtroom drama film A Time to Kill, McConaughey was famous overnight. "I had to go away and go; what does all the affluence mean? What do all these opportunities mean? What do I want to do? Who am I, Matthew? What kind of work do I want to do? What do all these people saying 'I love you' all of a sudden mean? That's a word, in my family, we don't throw around," McConaughey says.
He needed some time to, as he put it, "give myself some good answers," to hear himself think and get answers to hard questions. In Hollywood, he didn't have the room to ask such questions or even delve into what they meant. This advice is especially important this year.
"Solitude does not mean I go off and have a good time with myself. Solitude usually starts with me not enjoying my company at all. I wrestle with myself until I come out the other side saying 'Okay, McConaughey, we better shake hands since you're the only dude I can't get rid of… we better figure out how to get along, buddy, because I can't get rid of you.'"
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick and one of the great writers of the American Renaissance, once quipped that "all profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence." Studies support this notion, too. Silence and time away promote inner direction, authentic awareness and integration between your inner and outer direction. So, during your alone time, focus on asking yourself hard questions.
4. Be less impressed, more involved
One night sometime after McConaughey's father passed away, he awoke from a dream and carved a phrase on a tree. The phrase was "be less impressed, more involved." The one crutch he could always rely on was his father. But with that crutch gone, he had no choice but to grab ahold of those lessons his father taught him and live them out fully.
"I noticed at that time in my life, I was like, 'Oh, there's all these things in my life that I look up to.' Fame, people, money. They're mortal things. They're not immortal things. They're mortal things on this Earth that I was in such reverence for. I also noticed there's a lot of things that I saw as beneath me, that I patronized, condescended.
"Everything rose, eye level, sobering, flat. I could see further, wider, more clearly. My head was higher. My heart was higher. I was ready for the scars, risks and going, 'Now you march forward with what you've learned from your dad', knowing that he's not right behind you. March forward, head high and heart high, into this world and take more risk and quit having so much reverence for these mortal things."
You may not adorn the covers of magazines like McConaughey, but you can tap into the psychological processes that made him successful and use them to your advantage. Start by freeing up the real estate in your mind that any grudges occupy; listening to your inner voice, intuition and instincts; embracing alone time to ask yourself life's hard questions; and focusing on what matters most in life — like values, not valuables.